When Never Again Becomes You’re Either With Us or Against Us

Yesterday, I attended an event at the Capitol sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Museum that exhibited photos taken by the Syrian photographer Caesar of torture committed by the Assad regime.  Yet along with the demonstration of the bravery of Syrian activists and the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, speakers said the Iranian nuclear deal was at fault for these atrocities, that the U.S. could have stopped the atrocities with military action in 2013, and that removing the Assad regime will lead to the fall of ISIS.  I was jarred by this spirit underlying much of the event, one in which passion to protect others from atrocities is poisoned by blind faith in military force and American power.

The consistent message propagated by the speakers- primarily Congressmen- was that the U.S. was not doing enough, encapsulated by the hashtag created for the event, #ObamaMustActBut what would they have him do?  Anger at the lack of military action against the Assad regime often fails to consider what that military action would actually look like.  Leaving aside non-military options, some of which could help but are excluded by the clear assumption that only military action counts as real action, there is an assortment of bad or unrealistic options available to Obama.

Perhaps the action called for by #ObamaMustAct is the forceful arming of Syrian rebels, but that has been a failure when implemented, with arms invariably ending up in the hands of rebel groups they were not meant for.  Bob Corker and others suggested that the problem was that Obama did not act early enough, but there is little reason to think arming Syrian rebels early in the war would have led to a better result.  Probably, a few of the speakers would want an all-out invasion, in an indefinite mission intended to nation-build and expected to easily win over a population due to widespread dislike of an authoritarian leader.  The parallel is obvious and the unintended consequences would be extensive.  Many of the speakers meant a no-fly zone designed to stop Assad’s air raids.  First, as a formal declaration of war against the Assad regime that will not get UN Security Council approval, there is little to no chance of it happening, and Congressional Republicans probably know that and are using the option to score political points.  Still, although there is a case to be made for a no-fly zone, there are also many reasons to think that it would not be the easy fix that it is made out to be, such as the fact that external interventions lengthen civil wars, that it would have no end date and an unclear mandate, and that it seems unlikely that Syria’s allies would not escalate their support for the Assad regime in response.  Likely, once implemented, the same people promoting it now would denounce it as not enough and call for more extensive military actions.

Indeed, this hawkish vision of Syria is littered with ideas that are extremely difficult to defend.  There is of course the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of Congressional Republicans pointing to pictures of torture as proof of the immorality of the Assad regime (with John McCain a notable exception).    The event also displayed the speakers’ blind faith in Syria’s moderate opposition as a reasonable political solution, despite the fact that the FSA controls less than 5% of the country’s territory, struggles to conduct operations without the support of the Islamic Front, and has always been highly fragmented.  Considerations of Assad and ISIS’s status as the two most powerful actors in Syria were calmly swatted aside without looking next door at what can happen when there is a power vacuum filled by a weak government propped up by Western actors.  Indeed, at an event where multiple Iraq War supporters called for aggressive U.S. military intervention as the solution to a Middle Eastern conflict, Iraq was not mentioned.  The last time the US implemented a no-fly zone, Libya, was similarly ignored (liberal interventionists should not be let off the hook, either).  Representative Kinzinger’s speech included a claim that “no nuclear deal is worth 230,000 lives,” vastly overstating the role of Iranian action and U.S. inaction in Syria’s violence, discounting that the U.S. will have increased leverage over Iran with the deal, and making the far-fetched assumption that Obama would have intervened militarily if not for fear of upsetting Iran.  Above all, the majority of the speakers rested on the assumption that the simultaneity of Syrian atrocities and U.S. military inaction is evidence enough that military action would have prevented them, a logic that is used so frequently I forget how shockingly weak it is.

But that those who push their hawkish views towards Syria are perfectly able to make these claims without evidence to defend them is kind of the point, because in their minds, the U.S. is strong enough and righteous enough that if it responds forcefully to an atrocity everything will work out.  What saddens me the most is that this is what the message of “Never Again” is largely taken to mean.  The atrocity prevention community often falls for these pernicious ideas, letting the way the world has ignored atrocities so regularly convince it that any action is beneficial.  But preventing atrocities means, well, preventing them, and preventing atrocities requires a clear idea of how you are going to do that.  Approaches that scorn non-military actions, considerations of unintended consequences, and the recognition that we are not all-powerful allow moral outrage to turn into calls for aggressive military action with little to no evidence in between.  Don’t fall into the trap.  It will do nothing to help those whose suffering we seek to stop, and could very well make it worse.  “Never again” is a goal to aspire to but one that must be implemented in the real world; assumptions that the U.S. can solve any problem with enough force are pure fantasies.

Causal Stories and When Not to Use Advocacy Strategies

I recently read Activists beyond Borders by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, and although the whole book is great, I found one argument to be particularly important.  They write that “in order to campaign on an issue it must be converted into a ‘causal story’ that establishes who bears responsibility or guilt.  But the causal chain needs to be sufficiently short and clear to make the case convincing.”  While this dilemma is often overlooked, I think it is perhaps the key factor in advocacy campaign success, and it should be a central determinant in the choice of tactics.

You can find effective causal stories in –as far as I can think of- every successful advocacy campaign.  In the buildup to the arms trade treaty, advocates brought attention to how arms dealers would sell to human rights abusers that would then use the weapons to harm civilians.  In the case of King Leopold’s Congo, the Congo Reform Association focused on Leopold’s ownership of the Congo and the massive atrocities he orchestrated.  Both these cases provided compelling harm to individuals, actors to target, and solutions that were not excessively difficult to envision.

Yet in both these cases it is also the case that for the problems the advocates sought to fix, the causal chain really was quite short in reality, not just in the stories the advocates presented.  Yet many problems have roots so complex that they are nearly impossible to put in a simple causal story.  One such case is racism in the US.  While it would be unbelievably ambitious for a campaign to take on all of American racism- all movements, the Civil Rights Movement included, have incremental targets on the way to a larger goal-, even for many targets advocacy strategies will fall short.  An effective causal story could be crafted around voter ID laws, and the focus on police brutality has attempted to utilize a causal story.  Yet although police officers killing unarmed people provide a clear problem and target, it is extremely difficult to extend this to an effective solution.  The easiest solution would be target “bad cops,” but this totally misunderstands discriminatory policing.  Extending the story to lead to body cameras and other policies that could partially mitigate the impact of discriminatory policing have been effective, but the primary cause, implicit bias, is simply impossible to put into a causal story and advocacy campaign.  The target would be just about everyone, and what solution could the campaign possibly propose?  Beyond policing, many crucial issues of institutional racism, from housing policies to political representation, do not lend themselves to causal stories, even when aiming for incremental progress.

This drives at what I find such a necessary discussion to have alongside causal stories, which is what to do when they cannot work.  An effective advocacy campaign will have an easily understandable causal story that leads smoothly to a proposed solution.  Yet there are so many important problems that do not have a simple chain of responsibility that cause them.  The danger is that a campaign will be so attached to advocacy strategies that they will create an effective causal story, but then advocate a solution that fits into their causal story but does not actually address the problem they sought to fix.  This is what I think happened in conflict mineral campaigning.  They condensed a massively complex conflict into a story of Western consumers buying minerals that cause violence in Congo, and that story led to Dodd-Frank 1502.  Yet that solution addressed their causal story, not the reality of the conflict, and as a result they caused further harm to the Congo.

Advocacy strategies have great potential and there are countless problems that need to be addressed.  But advocacy strategies are a tactic, not the only route to create social change.  When the problem cannot be converted into a simple causal story that leads to an effective solution, then advocacy strategies should not be used.  Other routes, such as legal processes, academics and policymakers working for institutional reforms, or broader efforts to change hearts and minds rather than driving directly at a solution, should be used instead.  Contorting problems into simple but inaccurate causal stories will only cause more harm.